Editor’s Note: This is part two of a two-part series on increasing the value of beef. Part one appeared in the Feb. 23, 2016 issue of Grainews and is included as a link further down in this article).
The luxury eating experience involves the carcass of the animal. The creation of this luxury starts early on in the animal’s life. While it is easy to argue the cook can spoil the whole process in the last five minutes, there is still a responsibility to provide the best product we can, at least for the parts under our control. I am pretty comfortable in this assumption as most cow-calf producers I know willingly take the highest price possible. Very few (if any) of us would tell a buyer that our cattle are only fit for burger and take the corresponding price reduction. By this logic, accepting premium price, we are accepting our share of premium responsibility.
So, how do we take care of our end of the bargain and how do we try to equip the animal to succeed going forward?
Starts with genetics
For the most part, the genetic potential that forms an upper limit for any animal is decided by cow-calf producers on the farm. The matings you create this summer determine the eating quality of beef for the next year. While fertility is the trump card for most of us, it is important that some attention is paid to relative carcass merit.
There are some basic carcass traits worth paying at least some attention to. These include carcass weight, yield (REA and fat) and marbling. Most of the major breeds have EPDs or expected progeny differences available for some or all of these traits. The EPDs show the differences between bulls within the breed for each of these characteristics, and they are expressed in the unit of the trait.
For example: if two bulls from a breed had a carcass weight EPD of 20 and 50 pounds respectively, we would expect the carcasses of calves from the second bull to be 30 pounds heavier when used across the same group of cows.
Rib-eye area is expressed in square inches, fat in inches or millimetres depending on breed and marbling is usually presented in marbling score units. Larger numbers represent larger rib-eye muscle area, heavier fat cover, and increased marbling respectively. For breeds reporting yield grade, a smaller number represents more yield, for those reporting lean yield, a higher number indicates more lean yield. A sample of current breed average EPD for several major breeds is shown in the accompanying table.
If you are working with a breed that doesn’t have carcass EPD, the next best option is to use ultrasound information. Carcass ultrasound provides information on rib-eye area, fat thickness and intramuscular fat or marbling. Ultrasound on yearling bulls is reasonably correlated to the performance of their offspring. In other words the differences we see between ultrasound results in yearling bulls will be reflected in their calves. It is important to look at the age of the animal in question, but rank or within group indexes for the scan traits can provide good information on potential sires.
Also a variety of DNA tests may provide useful information on carcass merit. These range from leptin which controls overall fat levels and finishing, to specific tests for genes related to tenderness. Many of these tests work well across multiple breeds, although some may be breed specific. Testing a bull allows you to spread the cost against his offspring, which is usually cheaper than testing individual cows.
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Boost yield, keep marbling
For most mainstream marketing programs the goal is to boost yield and maintain or increase marbling. Yield is a function of rib-eye muscle size and exterior fat cover. As the muscle size increases, yield will increase. As fat increases, yield will decrease fairly rapidly.
Marbling is the fat that is spread within the meat. It creates juiciness and provides an insurance policy against overcooking. The most difficult part is finding cattle that maintain or increase marbling fat while maintaining or reducing backfat or fat cover. Marbling is a major component when people talk about “grid marketing” with premiums paid for feeder cattle that grade higher up the scale of marbling.
There can be significant premiums available if cattle are either fed through or marketed into the right program with knowledge of their genetic makeup, including selling cattle into extremely lean programs.
Keep them healthy
There is a lot of research that shows marbling or carcass quality is the result of a lifetime of effort. In other words, cattle can have reduced carcass quality due to stresses early in life. Solid vaccination programs and adequate nutrition at each stage of production helps to ensure that each calf reaches it full potential. This does not mean we have to maximize gain at every stage of life; it does mean we need to ensure the basic requirements of the animal are met.
Incidence of respiratory disease can also reduce carcass quality. Investing in a solid vaccination program is a good way to ensure cattle reach their end product potential. It may also be worthwhile to consider boosting vaccinations a couple of weeks prior to weaning, one of the most stressful events in a calf’s life. When marketing calves at weaning, this can be a great value added program to get the most out of the market.
Each injection has the potential to create a lesion or tough spot in the meat, so further to a good vaccination program, it is very important to inject the neck and use subcutaneous (under the skin) products whenever possible. The neck muscles are a lower value cut of meat and sub-Q products will have less impact on meat quality than intramuscular injections.
A good vaccination protocol also reduces the need for added stress of treatment with antibiotics and may produce cattle that qualify for a premium in “natural markets.” As well, for organic producers it is worth checking out a vaccination program as many vaccines fall under organic guidelines (antibiotics do not).
Horn of the issue
Horns are also an important factor in carcass quality. It is understood that many producers use horned cattle and that in some environments, horns are an important asset for cattle trying to protect themselves. In a feedlot setting, horns are a serious problem as horned cattle take advantage of their horns and can bruise other cattle, damaging their meat. Cattle that are not dehorned face a discount in the marketplace. Current products such as meloxicam can do a lot to ease the pain of dehorning and castration and can actually pay through increased gains, but also in ensuring carcass quality.
Cow herd nutrition and immunity relates to the health and nutrition comments previous, but it deserves special mention as there is growing evidence that nutrition in utero and immediately upon birth greatly affects the lifetime of the calf and the resulting carcass quality.
It seems logical, but healthy cows in good condition, produce calves that are more likely to have premium carcasses. There is obvious economic benefit to all involved, as a healthy cow herd is more trouble free, has lower replacement rates, results in more pounds of live calves for sale and produces a more valuable end product.
Most cow-calf producers are doing a very good job with the cattle they raise. As programs such as BIXS gain traction, it is becoming more possible to see how cattle from your program grade and yield, even without owning them to the rail. Examining these results and putting a bit of focus on the carcass merit of your cow herd and bull battery as well as looking at various management practices, can be valuable tools in value adding for your own operation and the industry as a whole.